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Friday, June 25, 2010

Justice, Perseverance, and a little help from Mary

As a soccer player for over fifty years and collegiate coach of 35 years, you can imagine the joy I had watching the US score the winning goal over Algeria in the final game of the World Cup group bracket play.  With all the hype about the “winning” goal in their previous game against Slovenia, that was disallowed by the referee, the US was in a must win position against Algeria if England would win against Slovenia. 
The US game began  with a couple of defensive mistakes that gave Algeria a great chance to score, but fortunately, Algeria was not able to capitalize on their early chances. For the remainder of the first half, the US team played as well as I have seen them play in any world cup competition, creating numerous scoring chances and very exciting attacking play. With England scoring an early goal against Slovenia, the US need for a victory was painfully apparent. As expected, the tension and anxiety for fans was building, the US created a tremendous chance midway through the first half when Clint Dempsey scored a well placed cross into the back of the net for the go ahead goal. And then it happened again. The referee disallowed the goal with an off-sides call. To be honest, I initially thought it was a correct call until the replay showed that Dempsey was not off-sides and the goal should have counted. Such bad luck for the US, again.
The game of soccer can be very unforgiving when critical, game changing calls do not go your way. For the second game in a row, the US was the victim of an “incorrect” game changing officiating decision. Although the announcers were making much of the “bad” call, our “boys” remained focused on playing well and staying with the game plan. Watching the US coach, Bob Bradley, it’s no wonder that the US players remained focused and with a “next play” mentality. Coach Bradley is a model of composure, professionalism and belief in his team.
The second half began much like the first half with the US putting tremendous pressure on the Algerian side. Algeria needed a win with a 2 goal margin to advance into the “sweet” 16. The game was wide open with both teams playing up and down the field, but it was the US creating the dangerous scoring chances. Clint Dempsey was thwarted by the post on a great scoring chance and then again by the Algerian goalkeeper on two other close range shots. US’s star striker Jose Altidore, had a point blank header that literally “hit” the keeper, and in my mind and heart, I began to think, you can’t miss these opportunities and expect to win. In my many years of coaching, I, all to well, know the pain, disappointment and frustration of having my teams play really well, yet, not get the deserved result because of bad officiating or missed chances. I don’t know of another sport, where you can play so well and put such pressure on your opponent, and yet not win.
Here’s where Mary, the mother of our Lord comes to the aid of the US team. Not that I think the Lord or Mary, was pulling for the US, but hard work and perseverance is rewarded with “grace” and an internal “can do” mentality. So, with 20 minutes remaining in the game, my son, seminarian, Brother Gabriel Lewis, LC, called from rural Georgia, where he was helping conduct a “faith formation” youth camp with 20 young men and a couple of fathers. Without TV and internet, he was calling to find out what the score was. I told him the US’s predicament and he said since he could not watch the game, he and the boys would pray the rosary for a “just” outcome.
The next 20 minutes of the game were nerve racking, with the US knocking on the door and nothing to show for their great efforts. My heart was heavy as it became more evident that the US was not going to be able to pull out the victory they so deserved. 90 minutes elapsed and the referee allowed another 4 minutes of stoppage time. One of the announcers made the comment, this is enough time for the US to get a result, and I thought, no, not today. My mouth was uttering, “we can do it”, but my heart believed this would be the end of our run to advance. But then, US Goalkeeper, Tim Howard, played a great ball to US star, Landon Donovan. He took the ball down the flank, you could see the play developing. Donovan played a perfect ball to forward, Jose Altidore who then centered the ball to Dempsey. Dempsey shot, again, the keeper made the save, but the ball rebounded off the keeper, and an accurate shot by Donovan to the open corner was not to be denied, not this time. The US players went wild with joy and celebration. They stayed the course, they would not be denied, they overcame all adversity, bad calls and missed chances, nasty fouls, all of it. Justice prevailed!
My daughter, Emily, a huge soccer fan and I were hugging each other and high fives where shared. And then, my phone rang again. It was Brother Gabriel, he said, “we just finished the rosary, what’s the score?”  Tears came to my eyes, not because we won, but how we won. I was so proud of the US Men’s soccer team and how they played. 
I can’t help but think that Mother Mary was enjoying it as well.
Bud Lewis
Wilmington College Men’s Soccer Coach

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